“We know that capitalism, which is already racial, gendered and violent, is not inevitable. And there’s nothing natural about it,” says Robyn Maynard. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Rehearsals for Living authors Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson about about organizing and parenting amid catastrophe, and how organizers can build new worlds, even as the worlds we know collapse around us.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. It’s our first episode of 2023, and today, we are talking about the future and how we imagine it. When you think about how things could be better, or how they could be different, what constraints do you place on that vision? How much like the world we live in now does that new world have to be? If you believe the systems that govern our lives are fundamentally unjust, how far beyond them can you dare to imagine? As we contemplate those questions today, we will be hearing from Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Robyn and Leanne are the co-authors of Rehearsals for Living. I have a profound love for this book and there are words in Rehearsals that I am quite sure will never leave me. The text resonated deeply with me as someone who is determined to make meaning and forge new relations in these catastrophic times. Much like Chris Begley’s The Next Apocalypse, it’s a book that I found heartening, because rather than avoiding inescapable subjects, it confronts and explores the things that frighten us about the present, and challenges us to imagine how we might live otherwise.
When Tanuja Jagernauth and I were preparing for our last Movement Memos episode of 2022, I actually shared some quotes from Rehearsals for Living with her, as examples of the kinds of ideas I wanted to explore. Tanuja was so moved by those words that she immediately bought and read the book. Afterwards she wrote to me, “I wanted to thank you again for recommending Rehearsals to me. It is exactly what I needed to read on so many levels … You can forever tell me what to read now.” I was so thrilled that the book had been a balm for Tanuja, as it had been for me, during these messed up times, and now, I am excited to bring Robyn and Leanne into a dialogue, here on Movement Memos, to share some of the ideas we found so helpful with our listeners and readers.
Rehearsals for Living was written in the form of personal letters between Robyn and Leanne. Their correspondence began in the spring of 2020, when many of us had begun to shelter in place due to COVID. In the book, Robyn and Leanne engage in a fascinating, intellectually rigorous, and deeply impactful conversation about COVID, the oppressive character of nation states, police and prison abolition, environmental catastrophe, parenting and what it means to build new worlds, even as the worlds we know collapse around us.
As someone who reads a lot of books about politics and collapse, I found the style of the book particularly captivating. Robyn and Leanne capture so much history and convey so much vision in Rehearsals, but the letter-writing format also makes the book a very personal experience. If you’ve ever been part of one of those conversations where people are connecting deeply, and spouting off brilliant insights, challenging assumptions and incubating ideas into the early morning hours, because no one wants the exchange to end – to me, this book felt like a socially distanced version of that experience, stretched out over time. Reading made me feel present for that conversation, and it was one that I needed. As Leanne explained when we talked, the intimacy captured in Rehearsals sprung out of an exchange that was organic.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: I think for me, the letter writing of this book was a very deliberate choice that stemmed from the fact that we didn’t set out to make a book. We set out as two friends, and comrades, and colleagues, that wanted to think alongside and think together through a moment of time.
And so Robyn wrote that first letter to me, and I experienced that first letter as sort of an invitation. An invitation in some ways to the present. An invitation to think through this present moment alongside her as we were going through it, in the context of these two different communities in two different movements that we were a part of. And it was a big invitation.
You all can read that first letter. And it’s not just a friendly, “This is what I’m doing in my life. How are things going over there?” It’s a deep engagement with literature. It’s a deep engagement with the issues that the present moment was sort of struggling with.
And so in order to sort of meet that letter, there was reading that I had to do. There was thinking that I had to do. And it took me a few months to be able to respond in the same kind of rigorous, thorough way that Robyn had wrote in the first place.
And so I think Robyn really started the process. And I found that responding to that first letter… And this is something that I’ve started thinking about last week because Robyn and I were in New York City and we were talking to my friend Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, and we were talking about this component of intimacy.
And Audra reminded me that that’s such an important, crucial point of Anishinaabe and Mohawk relationship building. If I’m going to go harvest a medicine or harvest a plant, I put down an offering and I speak to the spirit of that plant in an intimate way. When I’m meeting somebody anew, there’s this kind of radical hospitality that happens in sharing of food. It’s an intimate process. A lot of our political processes are intimate, and they rely on relationship building. And there’s a component of intimacy in that. The same thing with indigenous diplomacy.
And when I think of mobilizations in the past, I think of our leaders walking for days, and days, and days, to go and meet potential groups of people that would be on side. Sharing food, doing ceremony, living together for a while, to build up those relationships.
And I think that that’s for me, a huge contrast to what I saw in Idle No More where that movement building and that relationship building stage didn’t really take place to the degree that it would’ve in the past, because we had this shortcut of social media where it was easy to get a large number of people out on the streets for a particular event. But then when you start to have backlash from the state, the movement can collapse pretty quickly without that intimate sort of relationship-building stage.
So I think that that intimacy had a tradition within Anishinaabe thought and culture. And I also think, and I’ll let Robyn speak to this, there’s just a large tradition from Black feminists of letter writing and including intimacy as a set of knowledge production, as part of the movement. As a crucial part of the movement.
KH: In Rehearsals, Leanne describes the collaborative process that she and Robyn embraced together, writing:
We agreed to be first and foremost empathetic, responsible, and gentle with each other, which required a trust and vulnerability that for me was new in intellectual work. We did not shy away from the issues and tensions between our two communities.
In her first letter to Leanne, Robyn writes, “I am writing you so we can think together about what it means for us to build livable lives together in the wreckage.”
Robyn Maynard: To me, it’s so interesting. Because letter writing, as Leanne has pointed out, we started writing letters to one another not necessarily intending to write a book of letters. We started writing letters together because we knew that we wanted to think together more, right?
And I think that what I’m realizing now in retrospect, I can look back now to what has become a book of letters, that just began as a way for us to think together about what has gotten us to the point that we are at in a very broad sense. And what is it going to mean to go forward in the context of multiple apocalypses? I think that it wasn’t necessarily intentional because of that.
But what I’m realizing now that I can look backwards is to say that there is something that I think, letter writing as a form is something that at least can embody a very deeply feminist politic that is about thinking together as opposed to thinking as I. That is, I think contra-arrogant at least in the way that we were trying to do it, where it really is about collectivizing what it means to think about freedom. So Leanne and I were thinking with one another. We were also thinking with our communities who at the time were tearing down statues, camped outside of police buildings. And so much more.
And to push away from this idea that, there can be an academic article for example, that’s really declarative, that’s about making a certain state of claims, and exerting a certain authorship over that. But I think what we were really trying to do was to continually ask one another questions. Was to continue to try to think broadly, but in a very vulnerable way, in a non-declarative way about some of the histories that have brought us to here. About the ways that our intellectual and political traditions sometimes speak to one another’s, and sometimes don’t.
And I think that Audre Lorde is somebody that particularly I think within Black feminism, has really pushed us to think about what she calls the erotic. But I think that that’s not erotic in a sexual sense. It’s erotic in the sense that it’s about not divorcing the personal and perhaps spiritual, and lived part of yourself from your politics. But keeping a kind of full self within the writing process, within what it means to express yourself politically.
And that’s something that I don’t think we necessarily set out to do. But I think in a letter writing format, you end up really of course, because you’re not divorcing yourself from it and writing a third person story, you end up having to put yourself into it in ways that really demand a certain kind of vulnerability that at least for me, that was pretty new.
The book that I wrote before this Policing Black Lives, I think I say I maybe two times. So this was for me a really different way to have to think. And I think it actually really helped to keep that kind of full self. And it’s not just a book about us or our lives in any way. But at the same time, I think we are very present and our children are very presented in our communities. And then it just allows us to again, think back through the communities that existed in the past that have helped us to exist in the present moment. Helped us think about what it means, and what it means to be responsible to, in a real way, the communities that come after us. In terms of not only our biological children, but the communities that are following us.
So I think that in setting out to write letters, it just kind of allowed us a different inroad to think in a really collective way, and to think in a really open-ended way that wasn’t setting out with particular ideas that we had about some of the main questions in the book. Whether that’s abolition, Black and Indigenous land politics, carceral violence. But allows us to approach those in a way that allows us to create more openings than closings.
KH: The need to create openings is a real one in these times. Many had hoped, as Arundhati Roy famously wrote, that the pandemic might be a portal to a more just world. In the early days of COVID-19, there was a sense that the world as we knew it was gone, and that everything about the future was up for grabs. Grand transformations seemed possible. Almost three years later, we are not living in that transformed world that many had hoped for, and, in fact, we are faced with the further normalization of mass death as hundreds of people in the U.S. die from COVID each day, without mitigation, as though these losses have been sanctioned by the government for the sake of capital. We have seen a deterioration of empathy on multiple fronts. For example, while immigration activists continue to demand justice, Biden’s efforts to prevent asylum seekers from ever reaching the United States have gone largely unchallenged by the larger public. Police in the U.S. killed 1,176 people in 2022, making it the deadliest year of police violence since experts began tracking such deaths. Environmental catastrophes abound, and while work is happening, we are not living through a moment of mass action — which is what circumstances clearly demand. Sometimes, I feel like social media algorithms largely exist to siphon our outrage into manageable tantrums, that keep us occupied, and prevent us from contemplating the totality of what we are up against, feeling deeply together, or taking collective action.
The dystopian existence the U.S. has previously exported to other countries, or compartmentalized in sacrifice zones, is sprawling. Environmental collapse threatens our existence, and the carceral state threatens to devour us if we resist the extractive forces that drive it. But as we have discussed previously on the show, the potential world-endings we face today are not the first apocalyptic events human beings have endured. As Robyn wrote in Rehearsals for Living:
Today, the racially uneven environmental catastrophes of the present are inextricably connected to the unfinished catastrophes of 1492 — the two genocides at the heart of the Americas, to paraphrase M. NourbeSe Philip, when a death-making commitment to extraction and dispossession took hold on a global scale.
It is deeply important that we understand that death-making commitment to extraction and dispossession, not as something that has been defeated in its various iterations, but as a shapeshifting and norm-shifting force that reconfigures itself across time and space to ensnare, extract and annihilate.
RM: So to look back on what it means to tie back the very sort of apocalyptic nature of what we’re going through now in terms of the climate crisis, which as we know is so disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, other racialized and colonized people, both globally as well as where we live in North America.
What was really important in the text I think was to tie back these kinds of violence that we’re seeing in the climate crisis. Of course again, in the racially uneven pandemic. The ongoing crisis of police killings, incarceration, border deaths as all inextricably bound up in the kind of world destroying project of colonialism and slavery.
So we can look at the kinds of crises that we’re seeing in the present moment. And I think it’s really important to situate those within a longer history of 500 years of racial violence, of violence against so many of the living things on this earth who are also non-human.
So something that I think the book is trying to do is thinking with South African ecological activists and thinker Vishwas Satgar who talks about that period as imperial ecocide, to look at the ways in which approaching land and people as things as only to be extracted in the creation of profit from slavery through to capitalism.
Settler colonialism is also a kind of worldview that sets up most of us as nothing but resources to be extracted for Indigenous folks in the way of that, which as being one of the underlying logics of genocide. So I think that if we think about, Francoise Verges also talks about this as the racial capitalist scene of a certain kind of worldview that saw Black people as enslavable, that saw Indigenous people as in the way, and saw the vast resources of the planet that of course are keeping all of us alive as things that only needed to be accumulated at any cost.
So we can see the beginnings of the kind of ecological violence that we’re seeing now in terms of if you look, one of the examples that I use in Rehearsals for example, is the slave plantations in the Caribbean where they were trying to use the soil so quickly and so much to extract as much value as possible from those plots of land, that the soil was already devastated well before the Industrial Revolution in countries like Barbados, which was then a slave colony.
And the same kind of logic was applied to people. We see that enslaved people had a life expectancy of less than 30 again, because it was like this idea of extracting as much as possible towards profit. And I think that if we can understand that kind of logic that sees all earthly life as only existing toward profit, that that is exactly what has gotten us into the throes of this present moment in which most human beings are disposable. And of course, the logics of racism are what have made that palatable, and what has made that normal and possible. Is by saying that because of this kind of differentiating scale of human worth, that some people, some kinds of living things more broadly do not have value except for what they can bring to a very small minority of people who are accumulating that profit.
LBS: So you started talking about 1492 and these dual genocides that have impacted Indigenous peoples, Black peoples, Indigenous peoples in North America, Indigenous peoples in Africa.
And I think for me personally, if I think about my own kind of trajectory into this work, for the first part of my life, I was very much interested in reclaiming, and relearning, and engaging in land-based activities, engaging in language, working with elders. So that I could begin to learn to think within, inside Nishnaabeg and learn to embody that way of life.
And I think there’s a point where I was spending lots of time with elders and with Nishnaabeg knowledge where I started to understand that relationality and deep relationality was something that was incredibly important to the way that my ancestors moved about in the world.
And that sort of led to, I think you can see this kind of trajectory in my work, to an orientation that became not just local and not just internal, but also international. So starting to think about the different relationships between anti-colonial movement and anti-colonial peoples. Starting to think of things like solidarity. Starting to think about these two genocides that have impacted North America, one being colonialism and one being the transatlantic slave trade and its after lives.
I think there’s also sort of a parallel awakening that’s maybe happening for Indigenous organizing in Canada. Because up until the 1950s, Indigenous peoples in Canada because of the restrictions of the Indian Act, weren’t allowed to organize politically. We weren’t allowed to gather more than three people. We weren’t allowed to hire a lawyer. Our resistance was very much controlled by the state. And so our ideas of resistance and revolt took different forms than I would say larger protests and blockades. In 1951, those amendments, there were amendments to the Indian Act, and the ground shifted.
And so in the 1960s and the 1970s, you start to see this Indigenous organizing. Things like Red Power. You start to see Diné folks from territory reading things like Fannon, going to Tanzania. You start to see Anishinaabe blockades. You start to see the kinds of organizing that we now kind of associate.
And I think for me, that deep relationality and that wanting to understand what’s happening in my home, and to my family, and how it’s connected to these larger international systems of racial capitalism became really important in terms of being able to get a wider sense of how these systems were operating or a more fuller picture.
And when I start to think about it now, a lot of this was sort of set in motion even before 1492. Those kinds of beliefs and systems were being set up in Europe before anyone got on a boat. And so I think that’s become very, very important in terms of generating the kind of knowledge I think that we need to build the kind of world that I want to live in.
KH: When discussing environmental destruction and this age of catastrophe that some people chalk up to “human activity,” Robyn and Leanne pose an important question: which humans are we talking about?
RM: So I think that’s something that is so important. It’s important in terms of what we see as inevitable versus what we see as something that we can intervene in, is interrupting this idea that humanity is responsible for destroying the living ecosystems around us. As if there’s something inherently human about not being able to live within any kind of harmony with the land that surrounds us.
Because we have ample evidence that up until 500 years ago when a particular mode of production of slavery and colonialism was globalized, we have countless, countless, countless examples of civilizations that were able to live, and indeed excelled in living with and in harmony, again, with the life forms around them.
When we say that humans did this, I think it’s important to actually say no. Particular people, a very small minority of people who actually violently imposed an economic system that subjugated the vast majority of the world’s population and the vast majority of the resources in the world as again, only for extraction – that violence. The violence of slavery, of settler colonialism, and of all colonialism that actually brought the world into the kind of system that has brought us to the crisis moment that we’re in.
So when we say, I think we need to remember that it’s a very particular we. It’s never been a democratic we. Because I think that the reason that that’s so important is because it helps us to remember that if a particular segment of the population built this, anything that is made can be unmade. Anything that is done can be undone. It makes it far from inevitable, and reminds that there have already been multiple other ways of existing, of relating as a society, that have not been so harmful. And it gets us out of that doomsday way of thinking that says unfortunately, humanity is capable of nothing better.
Because at this point, we know that capitalism, which is already racial, gendered and violent is not inevitable. And there’s nothing natural about it. Again, it’s something that’s existed for a very small portion of this earth’s history. So there are other ways of organizing life, land, and resources. And when we say it’s the human, then I think we’re giving ourselves an ability to do nothing. When in fact, it’s very possible to interrupt and intervene. And again, create new and non-violent ways of organizing the earth and the resources that are not death-making.
LBS: I think that part of the book is something that the people closest to me, it was really meaningful to them, this idea that Robyn has so clearly explained. That it’s not humanity. It’s a small number of rich white men that have imposed this system on not just humans, but on the life of the planet.
And I think that it’s something that Indigenous thought, whether it’s coming from North America or anywhere else in the world, is constantly intervening and contributing. And saying our societies, our way of governing, our way of forming societies has always taken into account that we are not the only ones here. We’re sharing time and space with this diversity and cascading ocean of life, plants, animals, birds, insects. And our job is to not really remake the world, but our job is to fit into, weave ourselves into the existing planet that is functioning just beautifully without us by the way. And figure out how to build families, and lives, and societies, and nations that contribute to bringing forth more life. That are formations that are a world making force, not a world ending force.
And so I think that there’s a lot of knowledge within Indigenous philosophies and ethics to think through how to share time and space in a beautiful way with all of the other life that we’re sharing time and space with. And I think that that separation that Robyn so brilliantly makes in the book and just made in this podcast is something that is really important in terms of thinking through these kinds of things together, and looking towards a future where we’re building worlds that are based on mutual care and relationality.
KH: That kind of relationality has deep roots. As I have mentioned previously on the show, my own people survived the apocalypse of colonization through a commitment to reciprocity. If someone was going hungry, and you had food that you could potentially share, it was seen as un-Menominee to let that person starve. Such ideas are antithetical to the norms of our times, but they exist in our lineages, and in ways of living that have previously allowed people to survive the unthinkable.
LBS: I love thinking about relationality and thinking about how our ancestors embodied that practice. And then seeing how it sometimes gets embodied or not embodied, maybe. Sometimes it’s a very flippant sort of, “I’m going to put tobacco down and then I’m going to clear-cut this forest.” Or, “I’m going to do a smudge ceremony, sunrise ceremony, and then we’re going to put this pipeline under the river.”
And I think for me, those cultural teachings and those ethics are an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial force. They’re not just something that I practice on the window decorations of my life. I feel like they give very clear ethical imperatives into how to live.
And when I think about these practices of sharing and caring, and what can I give up in order to make this person, this form of life, this movement, this world better, while still maintaining my own sort of sense of self and still maintaining that care for myself.
And I think that that’s such an interesting way to live, this kind of constantly divesting yourself of whether it’s the emotional capital that you have. Or whatever gifts you have, just constantly giving those away. And then in return, being given that back. When everybody’s living in that way, it’s such a beautiful formation. And it’s only tricky when you’re enmeshed in the kind of world endings of colonialism. It’s just constantly forcing you to think about yourself as an individual and only an individual, constantly thinking about enclosures, constantly thinking about scarcity, constantly thinking about success in a way that is only about an individual.
And so I think for me, that kind of body of knowledge. And using our culture, using our stories, using our ethics as the anti-colonial anti-capitalist force that it is, is something that is important to me. That’s what our ancestors did. That was why they organized. That’s why they revolted. That’s why they engaged in the resistance. It wasn’t because they had read Karl Marx. Not that that’s a bad idea. But I think that they were compelled to do something for different reasons. And I think those are the same reasons that compel me to get up every day and to try and make a Nishnaabeg world that I would want to live in. As a practice, as a rehearsal.
RM: I think what Leanne’s talking about right now about world making as a practice is so key. Something that felt really important to me as I was writing, Leanne, the letters that are part of this book, is thinking about abolition as a world-making process, thinking about anti-colonialism as a world-making process.
We’re so often told that another way of living, that another world is impossible. But if we look to the historical record even, we can see this idea that Ruth Gilmore is continually reminding us that abolition as a presence, that that’s something that’s so accurate, historically accurate.
If you look to the ways that traditions of Black radicalism, of multiracial radicalism, of Indigenous radicalism. They show us that people have been working to build new worlds alongside the world ending projects of slavery, of colonialism, and capitalism all the time. And I think turning towards all of these world making processes reminds us of the inherent possibility of the traditions that we inherit.
So if we look back to for example, Claudia Jones trying to build a global anti-capitalist Black world in a Caribbean based in socialism, freedom of movement, of an anti-sexism and the exploitation of colonized Black women. We can see visions for worlds that were not based in exploitation, and destruction, and the mass incarceration of Black and Indigenous people. We can look to the environmental movement in Nigeria in the 1990s.
We often talk about climate justice work as if it’s new. But of course we know that on the African continent, people have been working towards an end to environmental destruction for as long as the environment has been being destroyed by European colonialism.
So I think it’s important that the kinds of worlds that we’re told are impossible are actually, that people are working to build them every day. When Black students in Hamilton are working to get police out of their schools and have safe communities to live in, that’s a kind of world building.
We’re told that it’s impossible, and we actually live in a system that violently extinguishes and tries to overturn every single moment of world making. But that’s not the same thing as saying that that work is not happening. And I think remembering that we’ve been building worlds as Leanne writes in Rehearsals, as long as they’ve been destroying them.
So that reminds us that the idea of what were then third world anti-colonial struggles didn’t die a natural death, right? European neocolonialism assassinated so much of the world-making processes that were happening. So I think that reminds us that world making is a struggle. It’s part of a struggle, but it’s also an ongoing kind of life-affirming struggle that we don’t need to start from scratch. Though I wouldn’t also say we need to just uncritically recreate the freedom dreams of our ancestors. But at the same time that we’re inheriting many traditions of otherwise living that stand to inform the kind of worlds that we’re trying to make today.
KH: When Andrea Ritchie joined us to discuss her book with Mariame Kaba, No More Police, we engaged in some discussion of abolition and the state. The question of whether we can abolish the carceral state without abolishing the nation state is contested among abolitionists. Some abolitionists are socialists, some are anarchists, and some of us engage in a bit of political promiscuity, so these are very much open questions, and exploring them can help test the limits of what we are willing to imagine and transform.
RM: I think the question of abolition and the state is something that it’s really sort of exciting to see that coming into our discussions in communities and with movements right now. And I think the way that these conversations are taking place, at least most of the ones that I’m witnessing, are really about… Again, they’re asking one another this question, this is one of the questions underlying the book as Leanne writes it in one of the letters, how are we going to live? And how are we going to live together? And what forms of governance do we think would make it possible for collective life to thrive?
And something that is so crucial I think to understand when it comes to the state is that the history of the nation state as we’ve seen it historically emerge, has been the carceral state. So if we look to the creation of nations the world over, of course that was done as a part of and as an outcome of Europe’s massive colonial project. Which of course split the vast amount of people living all over the world into discrete geographical entities that it ruled over first as empire. And then of course, the splitting up into nation states, that had already been carved out by European powers.
I think that looking at the continent of Africa for example, after what was called the Berlin Conference in the 1890s, in which literally the entire continent was brought under different dominions of European rulers, shows us that there was nothing natural about this formation. That it split up historic communities that had lived together differently. And again, put our ancestors, human beings, as well as the ways that they organized land and communal life under a certain kind of directorship.
The only ways that was possible though was through carceral control. So we see the ways that the military and police serve the same function across the African continent, for example, overthrowing and suppressing any kind of rebellion that people might undertake to organize worlds in their own ways. So the imposition of the imperial state was something that was inherently carceral.
And I think that although we have these incredibly powerful traditions of anti-colonial struggle and rebellion, what people were coming up against was a container that had not been designed for them, that had not been denied for their freedom. And in the context of the anti-colonial movement, and of course the neo-colonial control that we saw exerted almost immediately afterwards, the nation-state formation, the ongoing existence of policing and prisons, and of course determinations of who does and does not belong, which you could only really organize by violence or by threat of violence, showed us that we inherited a kind of formation that again, was antithetical to any real freedom.
So I think that for me, really understanding that the legacy of the nation state, is the legacy that we inherit of slavery and colonialism, is the legacy of carceral controls. That we need to be able to imagine ways of governance outside of that. And I think that it’s something that me, and myself, and Leanne, and Andrea spoke about in a past conversation that was explicitly about the role of abolition in this state. This question of if we could really create abolitionist futures in which people had the presence of things that they need, whether that’s decent health care, adequate education, the ability to move freely across space. Because of course we are thinking about abolition as building, as building possible futures, and what kind of governance would that require?
And Leanne I think answered in this way that I found so helpful of saying if there was a way to call what that would be a nation state, but there’s no borders, there’s no police, there’s no violent determination of who’s a citizen and who is not, then that would be nothing like the nation or the version of the state that we had seen before. So call it whatever you want.
But I think that it’s really important to note that there’s been so far very little version of that existing in the world as we see it, and that we just need to think about what kind of governance will allow us the kind of freedoms that we’re going to need, especially as we come into a climate crisis where who has access to different kinds of support, who has access to flee the places that are being devastated by floods. So much of that is going to be determined along the lines of citizenship at this point. And that conception is about who lives and who dies. And that’s not something that we can go forward and that we can maintain as we move into what it’s going to mean in the times that we’re facing ahead.
LBS: This question about whether or not we need a state is so interesting to me. And I think one of the things I’m thinking about is how Indigenous peoples pre-colonially lived for thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years without states. And things were freaking fantastic. We had beautiful, beautiful lives, and beautiful kind of linked formations that were all built upon this foundational way of relating to other forms of life in terms of respecting self-determination, ethics of non-interference, consent. This profound respect for diversity.
And I think that it’s not very long in the history and in the history of Indigenous peoples that we’ve come up with this idea that we have to have a state. And if we don’t have the state, then we don’t have any rights, and that we don’t have any homelands, and that we don’t have any territories. Then we don’t have any relationship to the land.
And so this question really makes me think that it’s so important to dream and vision beyond this present moment. We have to scale up our dreams. I think my ancestors might think that this whole question is ridiculous, because they had so much experience living in these beautiful stateless formations that kind of rejected hierarchy and rejected the kinds of violence that has to be embedded in the system in order to maintain the state.
So I think that this book is about leveling up, and dreaming beyond the present moment, and dreaming bigger. Because I think we have to start to be able to envision different forms of governance, different ethical systems, different worlds.
And for me, I go back. I go back to that idea of having a diverse group of people live together in a way that promoted more life on Turtle Island for thousands and thousands of years. And this idea that of course it’s possible.
KH: There are moments that challenge our ideas about what’s possible and, sometimes, those experiences can reshape us. In Rehearsals, Robyn wrote, “I am being transformed by witnessing in these times the multiple and often decentralized forms of community and collective care that stand to interrupt age-old patterns, determining who is able to live and who is left to die.” Those words resonated deeply with me and I wanted to hear more about that transformation.
RM: I do think that living through 2020 and all of these past few years has transformed me enormously. Because I think that especially now, I’m really glad that we ended up writing this book in that moment. Because I think especially now in a time where with fascism on the rise more than we’ve seen in our lifetimes from a global perspective, it’s very easy to forget how many gorgeous moments of communal, life-affirming struggle took place and are still taking place, even though it’s no longer at the forefront of the media.
I think living through a moment when we saw a pandemic emerge that was terrifying for so many people, and amidst an ongoing crisis of police murders of Black folks, of Indigenous folks. What we saw coming together in that moment, whether it was mutual aid support for people living in encampments, who of course many cities had largely abandoned in Toronto where I live. They turned off the fountains so people were not able to bring water, but folks were bringing water to their unhoused neighbors, creating as supportive of places as they could possible to help one another survive in a context of relative state abandonment for some of us. In the context again, of people who are incarcerated, people in shelters, again, people who had already been rendered disposable before the pandemic, and were the most vulnerable to the kinds of harm, again, so racially and economically unevenly distributed. That we saw people coming together undertaking hunger strikes to demand not only freedom for themselves, but freedom for all.
One of the most moving moments that I saw, for example, was when there were several Black migrants on strike in Laval Immigration Detention Center. And then there was this beautiful letter that had been written by Black prisoners in Nova Scotia in solidarity with them, that was really about what it means to demand freedom for everyone.
So I think that in these moments where people were demanding what seems so basic. A right to stay alive, and the demand that we would in fact all collectively work to help one another stay alive. We saw a rejection of a kind of world that tells us that only some people are to be protected, right? We saw a total rejection of that.
We saw that rejection in particular on the streets, in a moment when we were all incredibly isolated. We saw a Black and queer-led, but massive multiracial and historic moment that was a rejection of the status quo. That was a rejection not only of the life of the death making response to the pandemic and the death making killings that we are seeing of our communities by the police. But a rejection of an entire world that’s premised on our communities being slaughtered, on our communities being disposable. It was a demand for another world.
And that’s something that I’d never want to forget. Because even as protests can’t always go on indefinitely, the idea that so many young people came up in those moments to really come to believe and demand that we can live in a world without police, without policing, without cages. That knowledge, that knowledge making that happen there, that knowledge that we can demand something completely different than this, that didn’t go away just because the media attention did.
And even in moments that aren’t moments of heightened movement activity, that moment I think planted roots in ways that I hope that we’ll see what comes out of that in the years ahead because it was a vastly transformational time. It was a rejection of the death-making and racial ordering of the status quo, in a moment when people genuinely believed not only that another world is possible. But like Walter Rodney says, another world is necessary. And that urgency will not disappear in a moment of rising fascism.
So I think of course, our job as people who are engaged in. And movement work is what does it mean to continue that scaffolding of those kinds of world building that we saw in that moment, outside of a major flashpoint to make it possible? So that the next act, we are even more prepared to reject the logic. Which of course the response to the climate crisis so far really is to leave some particular parts of the world and some particular communities, as those who will be abandoned. And what is it going to ask of us to absolutely reject that, and to believe that we can reject that, and that we can do something else? And these are the questions that we’re inheriting. And I think that some of what we saw, particularly in 2020, helped us to get a sense of what is going to be asked of us in the years ahead.
KH: One of the things I treasured about this book is the way Leanne and Robyn discussed parenting. Climate writer and former Truthout columnist Dahr Jamail once wrote, “The act of parenting, while fully conscious of our likely demise, could now be one of the most heroic forms of activism on the planet.” I am not a parent, but there are young people in my life who I cherish and who I grow alongside. I have great admiration for my friends who are parenting and otherwise helping to raise children with strong values in these disastrous times. I believe those children are needed. One section of Rehearsals for Living that I found particularly moving involved Robyn’s description of teaching her son about his connectedness to the natural world — a task that she noted sometimes involves her pretending not to be startled, uncomfortable or afraid, when she knows that her son should not feel those things. She wrote about “resisting all of the forces inside me that are driving me to kill the massive (and honestly, terrifying) spider at the bottom of the staircase” and how she named the Spider Winston, and offered seemingly casually greetings, like, “What’s up, Winston?” as she and her son sauntered past the spider. Robyn writes, “It is part of my work to help him connect to living things, to land, to the place we call our home.”
In another section, Leanne wrote about how her nightly runs with her 14 year-old daughter were teaching her to stay in the moment and to indulge her daughter’s joy without feeling the need to layer warnings or lessons onto every experience. Amid the book’s history lessons and discussions of organizing, community and survival, Rehearsals also offers us a number of beautiful reflections on what it means to raise children to live free in these times, and to know what freedom means.
LBS: I think for me in my work, speaking about Anishinaabe parenting has been really important. Because Anishinaabe believe that children are gifts from the spirit world, and that they bring with them this knowledge from the spirit world that’s powerful, and that’s a force in the universe that adults don’t have because we’ve been on the land for so long. We’ve been on the planet for so long.
So within Anishinaabe parenting, there is tremendous respect for the self-determination of children. There’s this ethic of non-interference with this life form. There’s a practice of communal care when it comes to children. And I think there’s a real commitment to not be replicating hierarchy, replicating violence, and thinking very carefully about power.
So I think I’ve learned a lot within this Anishinaabe context from my children about power. Because as a parent, when you’ve got two humans who are completely dependent upon you, you have a lot of power. And power over even.
And so trying to figure out how to ethically be a parent and to create a family unit where those little beings know what it means in their bones to have agency, to have freedom, to feel respected, to feel like they have influence over their world, and to be raised in that was really, really important to me as a parent. As a pushback to the destruction of Anishinaabe parenting through residential schools, through the church, and through the state. And as a world making exercise.
Because I think the family unit is where Anishinaabe people learn about ethics. This is where we learn about governance. This is where we learn about diplomacy. This is where we learn about our political culture. And so this is where we learn the skills to solve conflicts, to engage in regenerative practices around justice. So the family unit becomes something that’s really, really important in terms of a lot of the same things that abolitionists are talking about. And parenting becomes something that’s a very powerful process.
So I think for me, I’ve always brought that into my work. And I saw Robyn as a parent. And it was a very, very natural thing to bring into the book, because I think for both of us, and of course I’ll let Robyn speak more to this. But it’s a site of knowledge generation. It’s a site of world making. And it’s something that’s really precious to me. And I think that any kind of care-taking relationship brings that same sort of wealth of knowledge and practice. Whether it’s elder care, or whether it’s accompanying somebody to the hospital, or doing solidarity and care work around prisons and incarceration. So I think there’s lots of different kinds of relationships where you can get the sort of same knowledge. But those relationships tend to be gendered, and they tend to be not thought of as important sites of theory generation. And I think to me, they are.
RM: To me, the central question of parenting actually leads us to some of the central questions of abolitionists. Some of the central questions that guide our movements are some of the same things that is sort of the most important about what it means to raise our kids, which is when you’re raising your own child, or children, or the young people in your life, you’re fundamentally teaching them what it is to be a decent person. That’s our fundamental job as parents. And one of the big questions underlying that of course, you have to learn how to love yourself and be good to yourself. But it’s also what do you do if you see harm? That’s something that we have to teach our kids. And it matters on the level of if your friend’s being bullied at school, you have to stand up for them, and you teach them different ways to do that.
And to bring this into what it means for our movement, that’s a question that is really at the fundamental of what’s it going to mean to build abolitionist futures? If you scale that up, what do you do if you know that some community members, of your community, are living in cages. That’s our responsibility collectively, to make sure that we can do everything that we can to ensure the wellness of all of us. So that’s a lesson that matters across multiple scales.
And of course with kids, you can’t just tell them, “This is what’s right.” You have to show them. Kids learn through actions. Kids learn through what they see, through what they see you do. So fundamentally, parenting asks you to engage with that question of what do you do if you see harm, to show them that the multiple ways of interrupting harm span from not letting somebody say a mean word to your friend, to showing up to a protest if your community is being asked to do that, if somebody has been killed by the police. Doing what you can to help that, doing what you can to support all of these movements in which people are being harmed.
And again, it’s our responsibility to assume responsibility for the wellbeing of others. So I think those lessons translate in really crucial ways that tell us what it means to be involved in movement, that tell us what it really means to be involved in a society based in mutual aid, and care, and support.
KH: There are books that help us, books that change us, and books that have the potential to help us change the world — and there are books that astoundingly manage to do all three. For me, Rehearsals for Living was that kind of book. At a time when many of us are grappling with what came of the world in the years when we had hoped that pandemic might be a portal, Robyn writes, “I suspect that we are encountering, not a single portal, but a kaleidoscope of portals spanning our most intimate lives, our communities, the broader terrain of struggle.”
The world has not simply changed, it is in a state of disintegration disguised by the powerful as normalcy. The powerful want us to believe their extraction and bordering and annihilation of others are inevitable. Because of them we are barreling toward collapse, and they are ruthless in their quest for profit and the maintenance of the status quo. But we are not bound by their designs.
The instability of these times presents us with a “kaleidoscope of portals.” To move through them, we have to dream, and plan, and build beyond the bounds of comfort, cooperation and the social molds that we’ve been handed under capitalism. What are we aspiring to? If you’re not sure yet, dream on it. In Rehearsals, Robyn wrote, “To value collective livingness, to touch and know life fully, to know a life that is not in some way predicated on and subsidized by the suffering of another: I suspect that this is what liberation is.” I suspect it is as well. And I think that sounds like something worth fighting for, even on the edge of oblivion — and maybe, especially on the edge of oblivion.
I want to thank Robyn and Leanne for joining me today. I loved talking with them and I hope we can have them back some time. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Music by Son Monarcas, Moulins, Frank Jonsson, Michael Keeps, Martin Landh & Chill Cole
- Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard & Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
- No More Police: A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba & Andrea J. Ritchie
- As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
- Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard
- ‘It never stops’: killings by US police reach record high in 2022 by Sam Levin
- Biden’s Expansion of Title 42 Takes Us Further From Humane Border Policy by Rachel Ida Buff
- Biden Admin Needs to Confront GOP’s and Its Own Immigration Policy Failures by Monika Y. Langarica
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